Characters: Neal, Peter/Elizabeth, Rachel, Bruce, Mozzie
Word count: 9,300 (/20,900 total)
Content notes: SPOILERS for all of S5. Specific for this chapter: All the fallout from the previous two chapters. So, loads of angst.
Other notes: This was written from an idea of kanarek13's, who also did the AMAZING cover art. Beta read by sholio.
Summary: Diverges from canon during the S5 finale. The standoff on the roof goes in Rachel's favour. In the aftermath, both Neal and Peter try not to fall apart.
Chapter One | Chapter Two
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Lying in a hospital bed, Neal looked all wrong. He was too pale, the white of someone who had been kept too long away from the sun. And so thin. Peter had never, ever considered that frail would be a word to apply to Neal, but right now it did.
Two months of believing that Neal was dead. And now he was here, and alive, but he was unconscious in a hospital bed and Peter kept leaning forward in the chair he'd slept in, wanting almost more than he'd ever wanted anything before for Neal to wake.
She hasn't hurt me, Neal had said, so desperately. As if he believed it. As if Peter hadn't seen her crack her gun against his temple, as if he wasn't so painfully underweight after two months in her captivity, as if she hadn't shot him. (Shot him twice, Peter reminded himself.) She had kept him isolated in two tiny rooms and she'd faked his death, but she hadn't hurt him. No.
Neal hadn't fought, after he'd been shot. He hadn't even fought to stay awake, despite Peter's escalating pleas. He'd just closed his eyes.
Peter checked his watch. Fourteen hours. After hearing about Neal's recent circumstances, his doctor had recommended that only one person be there when he woke, so that he wouldn't be overwhelmed. Peter and Mozzie had had a brief and silent battle, which Peter was sure he'd only won because of how much Mozzie hated the idea of being pinned down in one place for that long with everyone knowing where he was. (In a hospital, no less.) For the same reason, El was still in DC, although she had been sending frequent texts demanding updates.
The quality of Neal's breathing changed slightly. Peter sat upright immediately. Every previous time this had happened it had been a false alarm, but after a moment he could be certain that this time was different. Neal's eyelids were fluttering slightly as he struggled to open them.
"Neal?" Peter said. He leaned closer, putting his hand over Neal's. "Can you hear me?"
And Neal's eyes opened. They flicked around uncomprehendingly, and then fixed on Peter.
"You're safe, Neal," Peter said. "We got you out."
Neal swallowed. "Where am I?" he asked, his voice a rough whisper.
"In the hospital," Peter said, and then realised what he was really asking. "Ohio. Cleveland."
Neal nodded slowly. "How long?"
"Nine and a half weeks."
"Really?" Neal whispered, but he didn't seem to expect a reply. He swallowed again, clearing his throat. "Rebecca. Is she…"
"Rachel," Peter corrected him gently. "She's in custody. In maximum security."
"She shot me." Neal shifted, apparently to confirm this fact to himself, and fell still with a quick gasp of pain.
"Don't do that," Peter cautioned automatically. "Yes, she shot you. But one of the SWAT guys got her in the shoulder as she did, and that threw off her aim. The bullet went down the edge of your ribcage and nicked something, so you lost quite a lot of blood and have two broken ribs, but you're going to be fine."
Neal just nodded; Peter wasn't entirely sure how much of that information he'd taken in.
"I believed her," Neal said, quietly, after nearly a minute. "I didn't at first, and I tried not to, but you didn't come and I… forgot."
Peter squeezed Neal's hand gently. Something inside his chest felt in danger of cracking. "I thought you were dead," he said. "We all did."
Neal didn't react at first. Then he sighed. "She made you believe her too?"
"Yes, she did," Peter said, hoping this would reassure Neal. But there was no real expression on his usually expressive face.
Neal just nodded. And then he closed his eyes, and fell back to sleep.
Neal spent as much of his first day in hospital asleep as he could. After the first time awake, when he was with just Peter, there seemed a continual flood of people. Doctors and nurses and at least one shrink. He tried to be polite to them all, and when it was just too much to deal with he closed his eyes again and pretended to be sleeping, until he could fall asleep for real.
Mozzie and Peter always seemed to be there; if not inside the room then hovering anxiously outside the door until they were allowed to return. They were, somehow, harder to cope with than the anonymous flow of people in white coats and scrubs — they just took readings from him and asked him easy questions about pain and didn't display any emotions of their own that he had to worry about.
(The shrink was harder, but not as bad as he'd been expecting. She wanted to know how he was feeling, but he didn't really know how he was feeling. He just felt tired, and numb. She nodded when he tried to explain this, and told him he should concentrate on healing physically for now. That sounded good to him.)
Easy enough to deal with, until in the evening he suddenly began shaking, and couldn't stop. "Neal," Mozzie said, stopping in the middle of a speech Neal hadn't really been listening to. "Are you alright?"
Neal was going to say yes, but instead a wave of nausea engulfed him and he barely managed to turn his head before he vomited, following it up with dry-heaving as he'd managed to empty the meagre contents of his stomach in the first bout.
"Neal!" Mozzie sounded panicked now, and Neal couldn't reassure him because he was too busy curling up and groaning, sick and dizzy.
"Neal." A doctor had joined them now. "Try and relax, okay?" Her warm hands were lifting the edge of his scrub top, checking his stitches. "Your wound looks fine," she said. "No fever — temperature's actually a little low. Can you tell me how you're feeling?"
"Dizzy. Nauseous. Head hurts."
"What's happening?" Mozzie demanded sharply in the background.
"I'm not sure," the doctor said, still speaking calmly. "We'll figure it out, don't worry. The symptoms look like an adverse reaction, or a withdrawal but —"
"Valium," Neal interrupted. His teeth were chattering.
"What?" Mozzie asked.
"Rebecca… she was giving me Valium. In my water."
"While you were being held?" the doctor asked, and waited for his nod. "Do you know what dosage?"
Neal shook his head. "She said… low." He felt awful.
"Even a low dose can have severe withdrawal effects, especially after more than a couple of weeks of continual use," the doctor said. "This isn't in your chart."
"Forgot," Neal said, weakly.
"You forgot?" Mozzie snapped, incredulously. "And you — why didn't anyone realise this?"
"We did standard blood tests, but they wouldn't have picked this up," she explained, still somehow managing to remain calm. "Okay, Mr Caffrey, now we know about this we can work on tapering it off. And right now we can make you feel more comfortable." She put her head out into the corridor and called something, while Mozzie overcame his dislike of touching people (especially people covered in their own vomit) to take Neal's hand. Neal clung to it — the room was spinning horribly.
"You're going to be okay," Mozzie said, but he sounded scared.
They gave him more Valium, to stop the withdrawal symptoms. Neal gratefully fell into its artificial calm, letting it carry him through the humiliation of being cleaned up and re-dressed in clean scrubs, and then he let it carry him back into sleep before either Mozzie or Peter could return.
Peter had spent the last nine and a half weeks consumed by Neal's lack. So, he assumed, had Mozzie. But now that they finally had Neal back, he was beginning to come to the realisation that Neal didn't actually want either of them around.
It wasn't personal, El tried to persuade him. After being locked up with only Rachel for company for two months, with her doing who-knew-what to his head (and drugging him — that had almost been one thing too much to accept), it shouldn't be a surprise that Neal would want to be alone. But she was states away, and not there to see how differently Neal acted towards the medical staff — the same aversion wasn't evident there.
And when Mozzie had proposed June flying down, Neal… hadn't protested, but he'd reacted by going closed-off and shrugging diffidently, so that it was only too clear to see how much he disliked the idea.
(According to Mozzie, June had been sad to have that response relayed to her, but understanding that Neal was already somewhat overwhelmed by just two visitors. And that would have been a perfectly natural reaction for Neal to have — but it wasn't the one he was actually having.)
It was something of a surprise to Peter when, after two days in the hospital, Neal's doctor told him that he could be released the next day.
"Is he… okay?" Peter asked.
She hesitated. "The wound to his chest is healing well; he just needs to get plenty of rest. The dependence his body's developed for the diazapam will take a while longer to get over, and he'll need close follow-up for that with a local doctor, to make sure he's following the regiment properly. You say he'll be staying with you?"
Peter nodded. "With my wife and I, in DC." He had worked himself into a fear-fuelled rage aimed at Rachel, researching Valium addiction on the internet until the early hours of the morning. If he had had that information prior to the raid on her house he would have been hard-pressed not to shoot her, he thought, no matter how much Neal pleaded.
(Thoughts like that disturbed him. He was supposed to believe in the system, not in vigilante revenge like that. And yet.)
The doctor wrote something on her chart. "The best thing for him right now is to be out of the hospital and somewhere he feels safe," she said. She had avoided giving a straight answer as to whether he was okay, but Peter couldn't blame her for that.
Mozzie was the first to look up when Peter entered Neal's room. "Good news," he said, addressing both of them. "Neal, they're letting you out of here tomorrow."
"Oh," Neal said, looking vaguely surprised.
When it appeared that Neal wasn't going to add any further thoughts, Peter ploughed on. "Your legal status is a bit up in the air at the moment, but you're not going back to New York just yet. You'll come to DC and stay with me and Elizabeth while you recover."
That got more of a reaction — Neal visibly tensed, his shoulders tightening. "You don't have to do that," he said. "I'll be fine on my —"
"Neal," Mozzie interrupted, "Don't be ridiculous. Please. Let the Suit take care of you."
"You heard, I'm fine," Neal said. "They're releasing me."
"They're releasing you on the understanding that El and I will be around to make sure you're okay," Peter corrected him. "Those are the terms."
Neal looked at Mozzie, but he kept his face implacable, for once presenting a united front with Peter. "Fine," he said, his shoulders slumping.
Peter couldn't be glad that he'd won. He'd never expected that this was something he'd have to fight for.
Travelling back to DC turned out to be worse than Peter had expected.
Neal had prescription painkillers to help him through the flight, and Peter had arranged wheelchair transport for him through the airport at both ends. In theory it should be easy enough.
However, Peter wasn't sure that it would be even before they arrived at the airport. Neal had been very quiet all morning, but he managed to get even quieter during the short cab ride. When they were met by the porter with a chair for him he sat in it without a word, and looked fixedly straight ahead.
They only had hand luggage with them, so they made it through security fairly quickly. Neal seemed to be bearing it well, but as they approached their gate Peter noticed that his hands were clenching tighter and tighter on the arms of the chair, his knuckles going white.
"Neal," he said, quietly, while the porter went to check something with another one of the airport staff, "Are you sure you're up for this?"
Neal nodded jerkily, without speaking.
If he had been about to face something which would have been over quickly, Peter wouldn't have questioned him further. But this would be over an hour on a busy plane with no way to get off. "We could still drive instead, if you wanted." They had already discussed this, and had decided to fly due to the shorter travel time, but now Peter wasn't sure it had been such a good idea.
"I'm fine," Neal snapped. Loudly. He immediately clamped his mouth shut, flushing slightly as people nearby turned their heads.
"Okay. That's okay," Peter said, keeping his voice calm. "I'm sorry."
Neal nodded. He didn't relax.
They were boarded first, and the plane filled up around them. This really wasn't a good decision, Peter couldn't help thinking.
Beside him, he realised that Neal had turned even paler, his breathing becoming erratic. "Neal?" Peter asked, carefully, not wanting to provoke anger again.
But Neal didn't snap at him this time. "I can't do this," he said, very softly and very desperately, without turning his head. "Can we drive instead?"
"Yes," Peter said. He moved to pat Neal's hand, but stopped short at Neal's instinctive flinch. "It's okay. We can do that."
The cessation of the car engine jerked Neal awake. He had taken another strong painkiller and that day's dose of Valium as soon as Peter had acquired them a rental car, with the express intention of knocking himself out in the back seat for the six hour drive.
Peter hadn't liked it, that had been obvious from his face, but he hadn't tried to stop Neal either. "I was hoping I'd have some company," he said, and left it at that.
It had still been enough to make Neal feel guilty. He wanted to pretend that it was because of Peter he had felt so resentful then, but in truth it was mainly because of how grateful he felt for the familiar calm which the drugs brought him. He hated every symptom that reminded him he was addicted (a minor addiction, his doctor had kept saying, as if that was going to make him feel better about it), but he also hated how raw and barbed his undampened emotions felt to him now.
The sleep he'd managed to induce had been a welcome relief.
But now he was blinking in confusion at the unfamiliar street Peter had parked on. It wasn't until Peter said, "We're here," a moment later, that it quite clicked. This was Peter's new house. His home now. In DC.
Groggily, he unclipped his seatbelt and climbed stiffly out of the car. Peter got his bag from the trunk, and gestured for Neal to walk with him up the short path to one of the front doors. The houses were all low and neatly matched. Very suburban. It was too dark for Neal to make out any details of the front yard.
Peter pushed open the front door. "Hon, we're back," he called, and Neal followed him into a front hall, squinting in the abrupt brightness.
He'd barely begun to get his bearings when — "Neal!" It was Elizabeth's voice, and she came hurrying through a doorway. He was afraid for a second that she was going to throw her arms around him, but she stopped just short. "It's so good to see you!"
"Hi, Elizabeth," Neal said, managing an actual smile for her.
She smiled back. "Dinner will be about half an hour, so you've got some time to relax after your journey first. Hon, why don't you show Neal the guest room?"
"Good idea," Peter said, giving her a quick peck on the cheek. "Okay, lightning tour of downstairs — living room, kitchen, bathroom." He gestured to each doorway in turn, and toed off his shoes. "Shall we go up?"
Neal left his own shoes in the space under the coat racks and followed him. It was odd, seeing everything from the New York townhouse in new settings.
"We're thinking of painting some of the rooms," Peter said. "All the walls are white at the moment, and El would prefer some colour. Expect to have your opinion solicited."
Neal nodded. He followed Peter down the hall upstairs as he pointed out the bathroom, the master bedroom, the supposed-study they hadn't decided what to do with yet, the guest room. Peter opened the door of this one, and Neal followed him through.
Elizabeth had clearly been preparing for his arrival. The blue covers on the bed looked freshly turned-down, with two towels folded at the foot. A set of brand-new toiletries were laid out on the desk, as well as a sketchpad and a pack of pencils.
"They were El's idea," Peter said, seeing where Neal was looking. "She thought you might like to have drawing materials."
"Thanks," Neal said. His throat felt tight.
"That's not all," Peter said. He opened the wardrobe, to reveal several sets of clothes Neal recognised hanging there. "June had some of your stuff shipped down for you."
So much kindness. Neal swallowed. "Did she think I was dead, too?" It was the first time he had asked about it.
"Everyone did," Peter said.
Peter looked at him steadily, as if deciding whether Neal was capable of hearing these details. "Rachel threw what looked like your body out of the helicopter, after she'd unlocked your anklet with my key. I was the only one watching, and she knew I was too far away to be able to tell it wasn't a body."
"What was it?" Neal asked.
"Ropes and a jacket, bundled into the right shape with the safety harnesses and wearing your anklet. She was quite happy to tell us in interrogation how blind we'd been." Peter waited for a reaction, but Neal had no idea how he was supposed to react, so he said nothing. "Neal, you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Do I have time to shower before dinner?" Neal asked. He was suddenly eager to get back into his own clothes. Perhaps he'd feel more like himself then.
Peter's mouth twisted slightly at Neal's not-subtle avoidance. "You've got plenty of time," he said. "But you'll need a new dressing put on afterwards. There should be some supplies in the bathroom — call me, and I'll help."
By the time Neal finished undressing in the bathroom he wondered whether showering was an entirely sensible idea — his chest was hurting fiercely, and he was forced to sit on the closed lid of the toilet for some time because his legs were shaking just from walking into the house and upstairs. And that was with the strong painkillers still in his system — he was becoming only too aware that they were wearing off.
Trying to wash his hair hurt too much. And standing in the slippery shower was worrying. Neal ended up simply letting the water rinse him for a couple of minutes, and then climbed very carefully out again. Attempting to towel-dry his hair also jostled his rib-cage unbearably, so after a cursory effort Neal just left his hair to drip while he stuck down a new dressing as well as he could on his still-wet skin. It wasn't a very good job, but he was desperately unwilling to ask for the help Peter had offered.
The clothes didn't make the difference he'd hoped to his mindset. But he managed to be downstairs within the half hour he'd been given, pushing through the kitchen door even though the room was swaying very slightly around him.
Elizabeth took one look at him and dropped her stirring spoon onto the counter, hurrying over to catch his elbows and guide him to the table. It was already laid, but she shoved everything aside so that Neal could fold his arms on it and lay his head down. "Oh, Neal," she murmured, rubbing circles against his shoulder with her hand. "You didn't need to come down when you were feeling this bad."
He shook his head, unable to verbalise even for himself why he had needed to.
"Peter?" Elizabeth called.
Footsteps, and then a muffled exclamation from Peter. "Neal, what on earth —" He hastily checked himself. "Right, back upstairs. We'll bring your food up for you."
I can stand on my own, Neal wanted to protest as Peter started to help him — but he couldn't. His ribs were on fire, and darkness was hemming in his vision. Even so, he was tensing up at accepting Peter's support.
Peter could tell. He was making small unhappy noises in his throat every time Neal leaned away from him on the stairs, instead of letting him take Neal's weight. And Neal broke away altogether once they reached the guest room, refusing help to settle himself on the mattress. On top of the covers, because he hadn't resigned himself to actually going to bed yet.
Elizabeth was close behind, with a portion of food dished out and on a tray along with cutlery and a glass of juice. (Neal wondered how she'd been so fast for a moment, before realised that, rather, he had instead been far slower to get up the stairs than he'd thought.) She set it down next to him. It was simple, probably on his account; pasta with some sort of vegetable sauce. "Here you are," she said. "Shall we bring up our dinner too? We could have a picnic in here, if you like."
"No," Neal said. "I'll be all right." The longer they were in the room with him, the less hungry he was getting.
Elizabeth's eyes were full of compassion. "We'll be downstairs, then," she said. "Just call if you need us." Peter looked like he was going to protest, but she caught his arm. "Come on," she whispered, and he followed her reluctantly, with a last look back at Neal.
With no one watching him, Neal felt like he should be able to actually eat, but his appetite was almost non-existent. He picked at the pasta for a while before giving up. He moved the tray to the desk, changed laboriously into the pyjamas that had been on one of the pillows, and went to bed.
It was not unlike sharing their house with a ghost. Neal had been haunting him already for all of Peter's time in DC, sorrow and guilt entwined in each memory of him — but now that he was actually there, as if back from the dead, he still seemed impossibly far away.
After the mess of that first evening, Peter had tried to make sure that Neal had everything he needed. He brought food and drink up to Neal's room, and books, and tried not to be too disappointed when Neal only picked at the food and never actively engaged him in conversation.
Peter had taken leave to look after Neal, although he was doing some work from home as well. It was better than sitting in the office worrying that something terrible would happen to Neal when he wasn't there. Bruce had told him to take as long as he needed, and Peter suspected that much of his absence was being marked as sick leave rather than coming out of his vacation days.
Neal's status was still very much undefined but Peter wasn't about to chase that down right now, not while Neal still needed the medical support the Bureau was paying for. He was back on a new anklet, but that was all.
And he had barely reacted when Peter had put it on him. No quips. No exaggerated sighs. Nothing.
"He just needs time," El said, but she couldn't quite manage to sound convinced. They were walking Satchmo in the half-hour before sunset.
Peter sighed, and took her hand. It felt good to be outside. He hated admitting it to himself, but the house was beginning to feel oppressive and closed-in. Haunted. "I feel like I should be doing something," he said. "But I can't make him relax around us, and I can't make him actually go through with one of the psych referrals he's stacking up."
El nodded. "It's hard to watch someone hurting and not be able to fix them."
"It just feels like I should be able to. Like I'm missing something, and if I figure out what it is…"
"It doesn't work like that, though," El said. "I know you hate hearing this, but there's no magic fix for that sort of trauma."
"I know." He squeezed her hand. "You're much better at handling this than I am."
El shook her head. "I'm not, really. I know more of the relevant platitudes, but they don't actually help Neal." She sighed. "You're remembering to look after yourself too, though?"
"Yeah," Peter said, and she shook her head skeptically.
"You're eating less again," she said. "And I know you're sleeping badly."
Peter had nothing to say to that. He was waking in the night again, now panicking that Neal might have vanished, or accidentally overdosed and stopped breathing, or one of a thousand other things. Sometimes the fear was so intense that he had to get up and crack open the door of the guest room, standing on the threshold until he could believe the soft sound of Neal's breathing. "I just can't stop myself worrying about him," he said.
El tightened her fingers around his. "I know," she said. "I can't either. Sometimes I think… that he doesn't really feel he's been rescued. Does that make sense?"
"I know what you mean," Peter said, and found himself thinking that again at dinner that night. Neal, at El's gentle urging, had begun joining them at the table, but he picked at his food mostly in silence, his face still pale and drawn.
And Peter had to admit to himself that he, too, wasn't really eating. He just wasn't hungry. And there was an anxious ache in his stomach again — probably he should talk to his doctor, in case he needed another course of antibiotics. He would make an appointment in the morning.
"Shall I wash up?" Neal asked, as they finished.
"No, no, don't worry," El reassured him. "It's Peter's turn, anyway."
But Peter suddenly wondered if this might not be where they were going wrong — Neal, too, was maybe in search of something he could do. "Actually, would you lend a hand with the drying?" he asked.
"Sure," Neal said, sounding no more enthusiastic than usual, and Peter felt his spirits fall. But he pulled up a stool next to the draining board for Neal to sit on, and passed him plates and cutlery as he washed them.
Neal dried with a careful efficiency, and Peter couldn't tell whether his hunch had after all been correct or not. But they got through all the washing up together, and he thought that maybe Neal seemed a fraction less tense by the end. It was hard to tell, though.
Neal felt almost incorporeal, drifting through the days. He mostly stayed in his room, even though he knew he could leave it if he wanted. But he also had the strong feeling that he shouldn't try his luck; it was the same reason he hadn't spent more time testing the door in the room Rebecca (Rachel) had locked him in.
He tried not to think about Rebecca (Rachel), but he mostly didn't succeed. He had trusted her; that was the problem. He had trusted her even though he had known that he shouldn't, and now he couldn't stop himself from looking for the lie and the manipulation behind every act of kindness.
Peter brought him food, and the fact that it had been brought to him made it all but impossible to eat. One time, El smoothed his hair away from his eyes when he was half-asleep, and he had recoiled so hard he'd nearly fallen off the bed, and had set his ribs on fire again.
And he could see how hurt and anxious and upset they were, and that made him feel even worse. Peter especially was wearing himself to the bone with worry, and Neal wanted to help but it was as if he couldn't quite make himself reach him. As if he were a ghost.
(He knew that Peter looked in on him in the middle of the night. When Neal heard the door open he remained still and breathed steadily, because he couldn't even reassure himself, so what could he possibly say to reassure Peter?)
To his surprise, one of the first things that actually helped was when Peter told him to join in with the washing up. All he did was dry some plates, but it was still a useful task. And nothing like anything he'd done while in Rachel's captivity. There were no schemes hidden behind it; no fair veil over poison.
And the next day, he came downstairs, which he had barely done of his own accord. His ribs ached, but it was a healing ache.
Peter was working on his laptop in the living room, but his head snapped round immediately as Neal entered. "Hi," he said, gently, as if Neal was a wild animal he was trying not to spook.
"Hi," Neal replied. He immediately felt awkward — he didn't know what to do with himself now he was here.
Peter closed the laptop, and cleared his throat. "I was just about to make coffee," he said. "You want some?"
"Yeah, okay," Neal said. He could feel himself already shutting down again, but maybe he should make an effort to be around other people. And he did like the sound of coffee.
Peter looked pleased, but then he winced as he stood up, and held onto the back of the couch for a moment. "Are you okay?" Neal asked, concerned.
"Yeah," Peter said. At Neal's continued frown he elaborated, "Just having some stomach pains. I've got a doctor's appointment for tomorrow."
Neal realised, with a sudden guilty shock, that Peter didn't look at all well. His clothes were too loose on him, and there were shadows under his eyes. Had they worsened over the past few days? Neal followed him quickly into the kitchen, sitting down at the table.
"June sends her love," Peter said, over his shoulder, as he filled the coffee-maker. "I spoke to her earlier."
Neal scuffed his bare foot against the floor tiles, not knowing what to say. He knew he must be upsetting June, and Mozzie by not contacting them. Elizabeth had pointedly left a new cell phone on the desk in his room, telling him that it was pre-paid and he was to make as many calls as he wanted. But he hadn't wanted to make any. It was easier not to think about anyone else; easier to keep on avoiding them.
The coffee-maker began its cycle but Peter didn't move. Neal stared at the surface scratches on the wooden table-top, not wanting to look up to meet the critiquing gaze he knew was being levelled at him.
But then there was a thud, and Neal did look round, sharply.
He'd been wrong. Peter wasn't staring at him at all; he was bent double, fingers clinging on to the edge of the counter to try and hold himself up. As Neal shoved his chair back Peter lost his grip and fell the rest of the way to the floor.
Neal dropped down beside him, the burn of his ribs just background noise to his sharp terror. Peter looked up at him, his eyes wide and unfocused, and then he spasmed, and vomited dark blood onto the kitchen floor.
Peter retched again and coughed out blood, and it was only then that Neal finally broke out of his shocked stillness. He reached automatically for his phone — but he didn't have one, did he? "Peter," he said, "Peter, where's your phone?"
But Peter showed no recognition, and his eyes closed.
There wasn't a cell in any of Peter's pockets. Neal pushed himself to his feet and stumbled out into the hall. No phone there… how had he not noticed where the landline was, in all this time he'd been here? He was frantic with urgency by the time he finally located it on the writing desk in the living room, and dialled with hands shaking so badly he nearly missed the numbers.
"Ambulance," Neal interrupted. "I need an ambulance."
"One moment, please."
He was transferred to a new voice, and tried to instantly explain about Peter collapsing, about the blood…
"Can you give me the address?"
Neal froze, his mind a blank. DeKalb Avenue, he wanted to say, but that was wrong, they were in DC… How could he not know Peter's new address?
Because he hadn't cared enough to find out. He didn't even know what the road was called.
"I — I don't know —" he choked out.
"Okay, sir, please try to remain calm." The operator read him the address that was registering on their system, but Neal couldn't even say whether it sounded about right or not.
But he was told that an ambulance was on its way, and he unlocked the front door and left it standing open so that he could hurry back into the kitchen and stay crouched on the cold floor next to Peter, who was cold as well and wasn't waking up….
The paramedics were efficiently competent, taking charge of everything. One of them even got Neal to put on shoes as he followed them out, and made sure he locked the front door behind them.
Peter didn't wake up in the ambulance. Neal didn't take his eyes off him, huddled in the corner where he'd been sat out of the way. There was an oxygen mask covering Peter's face and one of the paramedics was loudly calling out numbers — Neal didn't know what any of them meant.
Peter, Peter, I'm sorry…
Then the ambulance disgorged him into the ER, and he followed Peter for as long as he could until a nurse stopped him and directed him to a waiting room instead.
He stared at his hands. And at his knees — his pant legs had splotches of blood. Someone brought him a clipboard with Peter's paperwork and he tried to fill it out but he kept losing track and forgetting what he was doing.
It must have been collected back off him at some point, because he no longer had it when he found himself in a room with Peter pale and unconscious in a bed and hooked up to lines feeding him things — oxygen, fluids, blood.
There didn't seem to be a way Neal could find to sit comfortably in the bedside chair. His chest ached with pain from his ribs, and from deeper inside. And he was cold; he was only in a teeshirt, and his feet were bare inside formal shoes. This was the first time he'd left the Burkes' house in the week he'd been there. He didn't even know if it was exactly a week or not, because he hadn't been keeping track.
The door opened.
"Neal!" Elizabeth didn't wait for him to acknowledge her; she was already advancing on the bed. "How is he?"
"I don't know," Neal said, numbly. "He hasn't woken up yet."
"Hon?" Elizabeth touched Peter's hand, and then stroked his cheek tenderly. "Sweetie, I'm here."
She waited for a moment, as did Neal, both of them holding their breath. But Peter gave no sign of waking, and his chest continued to rise and fall steadily.
"The doctor said…" Neal began, but his mind went blank and he couldn't remember what the doctor had said at all.
"He's had surgery for a bleeding stomach ulcer," Elizabeth said. "That's what I was told."
Neal nodded. That was right.
"He was brought in several hours ago?" Elizabeth asked.
Neal glanced at the small window. To his shock, it was dark outside. "That long?"
But she had only just arrived…
"Neal," El said, very quietly, "I want you to think about how I felt coming home to find blood all over the kitchen floor and neither you nor Peter anywhere to be found."
Neal stared at her, going cold with horror. She hadn't known. She hadn't known what had happened, because he hadn't thought to call her. He hadn't thought to call anyone.
"Do you know what my first thought was?" she asked. Neal shook his head. "I thought you'd tried to kill yourself. I rang the closest hospitals, asking if a Neal Caffrey had been brought in. But then I realised that Peter would have let me know if something bad had happened, so I called back with his name instead."
The form that Neal had partially filled in. He hadn't been able to remember her cellphone number for the Next of Kin section, so he must just have left it blank. The hospital had probably assumed he was trying to contact someone himself. But he hadn't.
"I'm sorry," Neal said. It sounded painfully inadequate. "El, I didn't… I didn't think."
She was still standing, watching him. "I didn't mean to be angry," she said, finally. "I know you're — not yourself right now. But, Neal, I was so scared."
He dropped his eyes. "Don't apologise," he said. "Please." He couldn't deal with her emotions; couldn't trust how they made him feel…
No. He was the one who'd broken trust, by neglecting to tell her about Peter. By not even thinking about her.
"Neal," she said, and he glanced up. She was looking at Peter. "I know you don't like being touched at the moment, and I understand that, but… I could really use a hug. If you want to."
He stood stiffly, and she was infinitely gentle as she put her arms around him.
Peter woke with Elizabeth holding his hand, and Neal sitting close on his other side. Waiting for him to wake up. What had — no, he remembered now what had happened. "Am I in trouble?" he asked.
El laughed, a little shakily. "Oh, you are in so much trouble," she said. "You scared the hell out of us."
His throat was dry, and El lifted a cup for him to take small sips of water from. "Not too much," she warned him.
Neal was quiet, but Peter had come to expect that. He was surprised to see Neal there at all. And rather ashamed of his surprise — he hoped Neal hadn't noticed it. "You doing okay?"
"He's doing fine," El said. Neal nodded, and Peter couldn't interpret the look that passed between them.
They had to leave not long after — it was already late enough for visiting hours to be over. Peter missed them horribly, but eventually managed to fall asleep.
The next morning it was just El who entered his room. "Hi, hon," she said. "Did you sleep okay?"
"Better than I expected," Peter said, and smiled as she bent down to kiss him. "Are you on your way to work?"
"Yeah," she said. "Although I can take the day off if you need me to?"
"No, no," he assured her. He was already causing her enough disruption, and they had had this argument the night before. "Is Neal okay on his own?"
El smiled. "Actually, Neal's downstairs. He got an appointment in the clinic."
"Really?" Neal had been steadfastly denying that he needed medical follow-up, and that he was healing fine on his own. As far as Peter had been able to tell that was probably true, but he'd still wanted Neal to get an actual doctor's opinion.
"We had a long talk last night," El said. "I guess this an upside of you terrifying him like that."
"And you," Peter said.
She didn't try to deny it. "You promised me you were taking care of yourself," she said. "But you weren't. You were letting the stress build and build, and you refused to acknowledge it."
"I got that lecture from the doctor, too," Peter admitted. "He wasn't impressed with my recent medical history."
"Good." She handed him over a cloth bag. "I packed some things for you to entertain yourself with — you don't get to be released for a few days. And Neal will be here soon."
It was about an hour after El had left that Neal showed up. "Peter, I'm so sorry," he said, apparently as a greeting.
Peter shook his head. "I'm pretty sure this was my fault," he said, indicating with his hand the general hospital set-up. "El certainly agrees."
But Neal didn't look any happier. He moved further into the room to take the bedside chair El had recently vacated. "You shouldn't have had to worry about me so much. I haven't been —"
"Neal. I do not blame you." Peter cut off renewed protests with a sharp shake of his head. "What did they say to you in the clinic?"
Neal visibly switched mental tracks. "That I'm healing well," he said. After a moment he added, "And I got a psych referral."
Peter pursed his mouth as he tried to work out what to say. "I know that's not something you're keen about going through with," he said, finally. "And I've been trying to avoid pressuring you — both of us have. But, Neal, I really think you should take that referral."
He was immediately worried that he'd pushed too hard, and that Neal would shut down on him again. But he just couldn't — he couldn't continue as they had been doing. None of them could.
But, to his surprise, Neal just nodded. "I know," he said. "I've got an appointment in two days' time."
Too much of Peter's reaction must have shown in his face, because Neal dropped his eyes awkwardly. "Neal, that's great," Peter said, encouragingly. "I'm proud of you."
Neal looked up with a half-smile, but then it faltered. "Don't say that too soon," he said. "Did El tell you about what happened yesterday?"
Peter shook his head, and then listened with growing heartache to Neal's halting account. Partway through he reached over to take Neal's hand; Neal didn't pull away.
"I'm sorry," Neal finished. He looked wretched.
Peter held onto his hand. "Hey," he said, and waited until Neal met his eyes. "We can fix this, you know."
"What if we can't?" Neal asked, quietly.
Peter held his gaze. "You don't think you can be fixed?" he asked. Neal shrugged, miserably. "Well, I know you can. In time, not overnight, but I have faith."
"That's what El said," Neal muttered.
Peter smiled. "My wife is a clever woman. She said you two had a long talk last night."
Neal nodded. "She says she forgives me. For… yesterday." His loose grip on Peter's fingers tightened.
"Will you forgive me?" Peter asked, softly. Neal frowned slightly, surprised. "For not finding you sooner. For not looking."
"It wasn't your fault," Neal protested. "You thought I was dead."
"But I still hurt you, doing that," Peter said. "So. Can you forgive me for it?"
Bruce stopped by to visit at lunchtime. Neal obligingly left to find himself something to eat, leaving the two of them alone.
Bruce watched Neal as he left the room. "How's Caffrey?" he asked, once the door had closed.
"He's a mess," Peter said. He was aware that he was smiling fondly. "But he'll be okay. Eventually."
Bruce nodded, surveying Peter with his hands on his hips. "You're kind of a mess too, you know."
Peter didn't take offence. "Yeah, I know."
"Well, so long as you're aware." He took the chair Peter gestured him to, leaning back in it. "So. How are you feeling?"
"Better," Peter said. He was uncomfortably aware of the scrutiny he was under.
"Than when?" Bruce asked, and sighed. "In any case, I'm here to tell you you're on indefinite sick leave now. We're not going to talk about the future until you're recovered."
Peter nodded reluctantly. It made sense — he wouldn't have let him anywhere near the Bureau for the foreseeable future. He was a mess.
Then he felt a lead weight sink in his stomach. "What about Neal?" he asked. Part of the reason that Neal's undefined status was able to fly right now was that he was under an agent's supervision. But with Peter on indefinite leave, that status would no longer apply.
Bruce frowned slightly. "That's what I have to sort out," he said. "I've had it suggested that if he needs further treatment he should be placed in an inpatient facility, until he's fit to serve out the remainder of his sentence either in New York or here in DC."
Peter made a protesting sound in his throat. "Sir, I really don't think that's a good idea," he said, sitting straighter to try and convince Bruce of his sincerity. "Isolating Neal from his friends again, and making him depend on people he doesn't know… I think it would be more likely to send him into a downward spiral than help him."
Bruce nodded slowly. Peter couldn't tell what he was thinking. "Having seen Caffrey, right now he's clearly not fit for FBI work," he agreed. "So what would you recommend?"
Neal didn't go with Elizabeth to bring Peter home from the hospital. With the agreement of the doctor who was now managing his care, he'd decided to forgo tapering the dose and just stop taking the Valium altogether, riding out the withdrawal effects. As a result he was feeling horribly queasy, and any time in a car would almost certainly tip him over the edge.
But he met Peter at the door. And Peter lit up with a smile on seeing him that actually got him smiling back.
Between him and Elizabeth (mostly Elizabeth) they helped get Peter upstairs and settled into bed. "I'd have been fine in the armchair," Peter protested, half-heartedly.
"I'm not putting your desire to watch baseball over your need for proper rest," El said, firmly, and Neal smirked behind her back. "Now. Do you need anything?"
"No, I'm fine," Peter said. He sighed a little. "I'm feeling wiped out already, actually."
She stroked his hair. "Well, if you need anything —"
"No, you don't need to be running around on my behalf," Peter objected.
El smiled, slightly wickedly. "You didn't let me finish. Neal's in charge of looking after you. If you need anything, call him."
Neal flinched a little as Peter looked at him measuringly, as if about to protest. But he didn't — he just nodded fondly. "Looks like I'm in good hands, then," he said, sounding surer about it than Neal really felt.
But, like keeping the psych appointments, this was something he'd discussed and agreed with Elizabeth while still riding out the guilt and fear in the wake of Peter's collapse. He wasn't going to back out, even if he wasn't sure now how well he'd actually be able to do it.
It turned out that Peter wanted to spend most of the day sleeping. Neal fetched him glasses of water between-times, and made sure Peter's nightstand was adequately stacked with interesting books and a newspaper.
It felt… weird, to be in this role. But not unpleasant.
In the evening El had to go out to an event the Gallery was hosting. Peter had cajoled her into admitting that using his laptop to watch sports while in bed probably still counted as being restful, so he had it balanced on his knees as he ate a small amount of rice pudding. "Aren't you having anything?" he asked Neal.
Neal shook his head. "I don't really feel like eating," he said. He had had some dry toast earlier, and that felt like enough of an achievement for his unsteady stomach.
Peter nodded sympathetically. "Can you get a damp washcloth from the bathroom, please?" he asked.
When Neal came back with it, Peter patted the bed beside him. "Lie down," he said. "Let me take care of you for a bit."
Neal hesitated, instinctively rejecting the idea.
"You've been doing things for me all day," Peter said, gently. A look at his face told Neal he knew what he was asking. "You're not dependent on me, and you have a choice. This is reciprocation; nothing more. Would you like to lie down?"
It had all the feeling of a trap. Show me that you trust me. Pass or fail.
But it was Peter, not Rachel. And Neal knew, quite suddenly, that it wouldn't matter if he failed. Peter would let him try again, and again, for as long as it took, not judging him for it. Because Peter, fundamentally, believed in him.
Neal lay down next to him and closed his eyes as Peter laid the cool cloth across his aching head. He smiled, and Peter's hand ruffled his hair.
"I forgive you," Neal whispered. "For not finding me before. I forgive you."
There were tears welling from under his eyelids, but the cloth hid them. He wondered if Peter somehow knew anyway, though, because his hand rested on Neal's shoulder and didn't move away.
Paint was speckled all up Neal's arms, and he was pretty sure there was some in his hair. He was still more respectable than Peter, though, who had absentmindedly rubbed terracotta fingermarks into his chin a few minutes ago. Neal hadn't told him yet.
They had almost finished the kitchen, which would hopefully speed up the still-pending decision on the colour of the living room — the walls were currently decorated with an odd mishmash of paint swatches, and the topic was dominating the dinner table discussions.
"I still think you're missing an opportunity," Neal said, continuing a half-hearted argument that had been running on and off for a couple of days now. "You could let me do just one mural…"
"Or a Mona Lisa in the bathroom?" Peter suggested. "What our house doesn't need is forgeries stuck to the wall."
"Not forgeries — and it's not like anyone would mistake them for the original," Neal protested.
"The answer is still no. It's going to be no every single time you ask. No."
Neal laughed, and leaned against one of the covered-over counters to take a drink of water as he surveyed their work. Neither he nor Peter were up to anything like full speed again yet, but the redecorating effort was still coming along nicely.
"You keep checking your watch," he said. "Are you waiting for something?"
Peter pushed his watch self-consciously back into the pocket of his paint-smeared jeans. "I'm expecting a call from Bruce this afternoon," he said.
"Ah," Neal said, and pointed Peter towards his own glass of water. Peter nodded his thanks and moved to pick it up. "You're not trying to go back to work early, are you?"
"No," Peter said, definitively. "We agreed, didn't we? Not until I'm one hundred percent, and then part-time at first."
"Good," Neal said. "My therapist says sticking to commitments is very important."
"She said that to you," Peter pointed out.
Neal shrugged. "I don't see why that's relevant."
Peter rolled his eyes, and Neal grinned. He enjoyed teasing Peter — and more, he enjoyed how much Peter obviously liked it. It had been an enormously welcome surprise how easily their old way of bantering had bubbled back up to the surface again.
Peter's phone rang, and he pulled it out of his pocket. "Hi, Bruce."
Neal turned back to carefully painting along the edge of the door frame. He might complain to Peter about how unimaginative it was, but there was still definitely something very satisfying about blocking out large areas in a single colour.
He was trying not to eavesdrop, but he caught bits of Peter's conversation anyway. "A definite yes? And when does that take effect?" A pause. "No, it's the right thing. Absolutely. Goodbye, and thank you."
"That sounded official," Neal said, idly curious. Peter had ended the call, but not yet put his phone away.
"Yes," Peter said. His expression was a little strange as he looked at Neal. He seemed about to say something, but then he stopped himself. "Wait here. I'll be right back."
Neal waited, much more than idly curious now, until Peter returned with something hidden in his hand. "Put your foot up on the chair," he said.
Confused, Neal obeyed. And Peter unlocked his anklet, and took it off.
"Are you giving me a different model?" Neal asked. His chest was suddenly tight.
"No," Peter said. He set the anklet down firmly on the counter-top. "You remember all those months ago in New York, when you asked for your sentence to be commuted? I passed the suggestion along to Bruce recently. With all you've done for the Bureau, and in light of recent events, the higher-ups had no objection."
"You mean, in light of the fact I'm too messed up to be of use to the FBI now?" Neal asked. He felt breathless; giddy.
"Think of it as the silver lining," Peter said, with a slightly sardonic twist to his smile. "Also, Bruce is making sure that medical expenses relating to your kidnapping continue to be covered, since you'd probably have grounds to sue the Bureau otherwise." He put a hand on Neal's shoulder. "You okay?"
"Ask me again when it's sunk in," Neal said, a little numbly. He was still having difficulty wrapping his head around it.
He was free.
"But what am I supposed to do now?" he asked, a little plaintively.
"That's up to you," Peter said. "Kind of the point, yes?" He was beaming fondly.
"True. Yes." Neal picked up the anklet, weighing it in his hand. It was startlingly light. "Peter, I… don't know what to say. Thank you."
"You earned it," Peter said, and reached out an arm. Neal hugged him, as tightly as his still-healing ribs would allow, and Peter clapped him on the back.
He could go anywhere.
"Can I make a suggestion?" Peter asked, and Neal nodded. "Call Mozzie and June. They've been waiting to hear from you in person for long enough."
It was true. He'd begun exchanging emails — his somewhat brief and halting, theirs long and full of patient support — but he hadn't actually spoken to either of them in far too long. And now he had this news. What was the point of good, of fantastic news if one didn't share it with friends?
"I'll do that," Neal said.
Peter smiled. "I imagine Mozzie will be in danger of exploding with excitement when he realises you can go off travelling again." Something wistful slipped into his face.
You can go anywhere. Do anything.
Neal became aware that he was still holding the anklet, dangling it from one hand. He set it down and picked up his paintbrush instead. "Have you settled on the colour for your bedroom?"
Peter looked nonplussed at the change of tack. "Not yet, why?"
Neal shrugged nonchalantly, and poured more terracotta paint into his tray. "I can't walk out on a job half-done," he said. "We haven't even finished painting all the downstairs rooms yet." Suddenly afraid he was misreading the situation, he quickly looked up. "That is, if you wouldn't mind me staying a little longer?"
Peter gripped his arm, his hold brief but fierce. "Never," he said. His eyes were shining as he blinked rapidly, but his voice was firm. "Stay as long as you like."
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